Editor’s note - Bruce Hamilton is President of GBMP, Inc., (www.gbmp.org) a not-for-profit located in the College of Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Twenty-five years ago a book called The Machine That Changed the World coined the term “Lean.” It was the first time the term was used to describe what had been previously referred to as the Toyota Production System, or TPS.
The book, which was written by a distinguished academic panel, legitimatized the techniques and tools being used by The Toyota Motor Corporation and captured the imagination of industry and lawmakers alike.
What was not as well understood at that time was the profound impact the use of TPS methods would have on employee development. Previously disengaged employees became excited about solving problems and making improvements. The mantra (first echoed by Japanese industrial engineer Shigeo Shingo who is considered the world’s leading expert on manufacturing practices and the Toyota Production System) “easier, better, faster and then cheaper” implied that Lean methods when properly understood not only improved a company’s competiveness through higher quality, shorter lead-times and lower costs; it also gave every employee a personal challenge to make their work better.
The concept of workforce investment and development, it turns out, was more of a sea change for industry than the technical aspects of Lean. For more than a decade, most manufacturers glommed onto the tools without understanding the essential ingredients of employee understanding and participation – every employee, not just a small “A-team.” Results from this well-intentioned but hollow approach to improvement were mostly disappointing. Apparent advances made through “improvement events” did not stick because neither employees nor managers really understood the “know-why” behind the know-how.
In 2004 on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI), Jim Womack, founder of LEI and principle author The Machine That Changed the World, declared “The age of tools is over.” What had been implicit in the Toyota Production System from the start – the focus on people – was finally becoming apparent to at least some industry leaders. Today, yet another decade later, the concept of employees as the “most valuable resource” is finally gaining broader traction. At its Lean Transformation Summit in March, LEI’s current CEO, John Shook quoted another TPS aphorism that sums up the importance of people to successful Lean transformation: “Build people first, then products.”
The 10th Annual Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference (October 1-2, 2014 at the Mass Mutual Center, in Springfield) will pick up the same theme with a program entitled Lead, Enable and Nurture: Putting People First. Featuring both nationally recognized Lean advocates from manufacturing and healthcare (Goodyear, Whirlpool, ThedaCare, IBM, MillerCoors and more) as well as local employee improvement teams sharing their Lean transformations during panel discussions and in the innovative “Lean Lounge,” the event is expected to draw more than 700 attendees from more than 200 different lean thinking organizations.
No surprise - many of those organizations will bring large numbers of their employees. These companies know that it’s those people who will ultimately drive their LEAN process.